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Constructive Denial?

Started by Mike Holmes, November 30, 2005, 07:13:39 PM

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Mark Woodhouse

Quote from: GreatWolf on December 01, 2005, 01:22:11 AM
When I talked about "canon", I was referring to all the Tenets of the setting that constrain play, regardless of their source.  Maybe "canon" isn't the best term for it.

I have used Library in discussions elsewhere ( for one) to refer to that stuff. Everybody brings a personal Library to the table with them, and play is at least in part a matter of bashing selections from those libraries up against each other to create a usable intersection. I think of it as being a lot like collaborative filtering - the stuff Amazon, et al, use to arrive at recomendations - in that what you're doing is meshing up multiple sets of individual preferences and aesthetic judgments, and trimming the false positives, then rerunning that process again and again to converge on a reliable estimate of group tastes.


This may sound odd, but I agree with Mike and Marco: constraint seems to me the appropriate term.

My sense is that we are talking about a deliberate, arbitrary constraint upon what can and cannot enter play (in a broad sense), not a flat rejection or denial that there are other things going on.  The latter would sound to me like those old-fashioned "D&D people turn into serial murderers because they can't tell fantasy from reality!" sort of nuts.  The former is a well-known, constructive process of analysis, filtering, or what have you.

Interestingly, "constraint" also fits neatly into the question of things like canon in the context of religion, which seems to me appropriate: having arbitrarily limited the range of texts (or whatever), one then employs lots of ingenuity to develop infinite complexity within the constraint, leading to things like theology.  And, as you know, I'm always happier to see new terms introduced that mesh smoothly with stock terms in the "human sciences" (so-called).

In short, in my neck of the academic woods this is normally called constraint.  I'd like to see the same terminology 'round these parts here.

Chris Lehrich


Quote from: Marco on November 30, 2005, 10:40:31 PMI like Constructive Constraint. But then, I thought Right-To-Dream was a step in the right direction to, so what do I know?

If we get votes can I change mine? Purely to make Marco happy, and I mean that sincerely. I still think "constructive denial" is a better term, but Marco is Mr. Sim in a way I'm not, and I think there's genuine value in a term that someone like him responds to. I'd love to talk Marco INTO preferring Constructive Denial, but if I can't, I yield.


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Christoph Boeckle

I'd prefer "constructive constraint" as well.

I think I now see what was confusing me, after reading Ron's post in the other thread again. I'll give it a go, since I think I'm not the only one who was confused.

The Pool, and it seems Universalis as well, has a rule that demands coherence of Monologues of Victory with the setting and whatever happened in the game. I thought this was a constructive constraint, but in fact it's just the "Never say no" rule from improv theatre in disguise (does that work with Universalis as well?). From there, anything is okay.

The (b) part from Ron's post asks more. It asks to respect a "global vision" or basic principles (the Bible, the cannon), an overall aesthetic or mutual understanding of the fictional content in a way that the Pool doesn't. The Pool's rules are just concerned with making a point (addressing premise), while the content is secondary. Sim cringes at that statement.

To take the Scrabble example a step further, Sim could be okay to allow other words than those that are in the incomplete dictionary, as long as they are words from the player's language (the group vision). Narr could allow even foreign terms, as long as they convey the desired meaning (but this would be breaking (b)). Narr still asks you to respect the already placed words and the alphabet, but from there, you can make your points.

Since Sim is about exploring fictional content, why not expand the new term to "constructive content constraint"? (Allowing for some nice acronyms: con³, ccc, 3c...)
This might help lessen confusions of the sort I had (it's not about constraining premise or what's okay for stepping on up).



If the term is to describe that feeling (when I can't accept something new introduced by another player), 'denial' is quite precise, much closer then 'constraint'.

I would think about 'constraint' if scope of things accepted or denied could be consiously agreed upon, before play.

There happens to be an overt 'constraint' (like setting) but... isn't it a different thing?


Bravo, an excellent discussion from all concerned IMO.

I'd just like to raise for discussionan idea prosted previously as RPG as Set Text, in which I argued that selecting or appointing ANY text or authority external to the play group could serve the same function as game worlds do.  I fully agree with the points raised above about the agreement on the "fiction" being potentially dubious and varied, but if one said that the specific constraint for this game was, say, Star Trek episodes 1-6, then this specification resolves any potewntial dispute about what should, or should not, be part of canon.  And this applies even if it later transpires that the selected canon is wrong, or legitimately challangeable, on the basis of some other source.  The objective validity of the claim is not important, only the consensus and the external reference.

Talysman wrote:
QuoteThe trad sim approach is for the ref to "teach" the Official Reality to dissenters by bad consequences in play - classic case of trying to solve a social-contract issue at the intragame level.

Agreed in full.  Now, I am in favour of there being an Official Reality of course, but I think the hitherto non-explicit nature of this contract has lead to much of the poisoning of RPG discussion, because this didactic/dictatorial role, especially in the context of adolescent gaming, tends to accumulate moralistic overtones about what is "right" and "reasonable", leading to a sense that the GM "punishes" - which is, of course, mostly the adolescent experience of adult behaviour.  So I think a proper discussion about the Intent of sim, and the purpose of constraint, in future RPG texts may go a long way to making many games healthier and functional and a much more positive experience for many participants.
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Ron Edwards


As I see it, "constraint" is a key factor in constructing fiction of any kind, and it very definitely applies, in many senses of the word, to all of role-playing. Adding "constructive" is a nice and hopeful touch.

But none of that has anything to do with the points I've been making about Simulationist play. At present, I see not only accuracy, but useful and meaningful tension between the terms "constructive" and "denial."

Just as I see an implied question in "Story Now," which is to say "As opposed to Story When Else?", I see an implied question in "Constructive Denial." It is, "How can that be?" which then can be answered.

Removing that tension destroys the point entirely. I'm a little appalled by this apparent desire to clear terminology of tension for some vague (and never to be appeased) hope for comfort.

It seems to me as if, in the desire to find some sort of comfy-term, many of you are forgetting the point. The point is to describe a creative and social interaction unique to and necessary for Sim. I am very satisfied with the summary tag-line being "The Right to Dream," and we ought to be talking about the "Right," finally, as I outlined in the previous thread. I am also very satisfied with "Constructive Denial" as the core, or one of the core processes involved.

Points made so far by Gareth, jmac, and John L make a great deal of sense to me.


Mike Holmes

I only proposed constraint hoping that it would have the same meaning, while, yes, being more "comfy." But I do see your point.

To illustrate and kill two birds, Bob, what tenets in Universalis to is to provide constraint. Denial comes when somebody actually challenges something based on the tenets and their interpretation of them. This is why I'd say that the tenets in Universalis are really only "exploration" supportive, and not sim supportive particularly. They rules really don't go far in telling anyone how hard they have to do the denial part (leaving the rest to be only vaguley nar supportive as it promotes conflict as a way to move story on).

So we could say that exploration is prioritized as simulationism precisely when play moves on from simple constraint to denial being the primary criteria in determining what happens ("Can't be this, it must be that")? That incorporates bricolage, but I think also leaves the definition open to larger sim definition (like my assertion that some people will defer to the mechanics as a way of determining what to deny and what not to deny). Chris?

I'd also like to hear what MJ thinks about this and if it matches "discovery." I think it does in that, sans this process, discovery is impossible as defined. That is you have to have the denial of the "wrong" in place before you can "find" anything as a player.

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Ron Edwards

M. J. Young

I'm glad I was asked to comment, because I was going to comment anyway and was very pleased to see this thread opened and very much hoping it had not been closed already.

As far as whether "constructive denial" fits with "discovery", I'm going to give a guarded yes. That is, everything about the concept as I understand it fits with discovery, but I have other doubts about the concept that need to be addressed.

I want to say that I found this new concept very insightful, and can see that it goes a long way to clarifying much about simulationism. It is at the very least a major step toward finding that clear explanation of the very specific something which we've been struggling to describe.

My problem arises from this notion of an agreed canon as a necessary component of all simulationist play. I can see how it fits with many, many simulationist skewers, but there are also simulationist skewers with which it does not fit.

I agree with Ron's assessment of Multiverser, that it is essentially a simulationist game, and a good one. Narrativist and Gamist play within it is created through player/referee negotiation and the introduction of supportive elements through the game worlds (which are ultimately "supplemental rules" in the form of setting). Many of the Multiverser worlds, including published ones, are fully simulationist-supporting. I think particularly of the major "gather" worlds which are the centerpieces of the two world books, NagaWorld and Bah Ke'gehn.

What immediately catches my attention about these two worlds is that at the moment play begins, the referee is the only person at the table who knows (excuse the vulgarism) squat about them. As referee, I am revealing the world in response to their exploratory ventures, and they have absolutely no basis on which to challenge anything I claim is in that world. Thus this idea of "shared canon" or "agreed library" can mean not more than "we agree that what the referee tells us about the world is true".

This is particularly significant when I run Bah Ke'gehn, because I created that world and wrote the text myself. It cannot even be said (as it could with NagaWorld) that I am constrained to what someone else imagined, because here I am constrained to what I imagined and put on paper; no one else playing at the table knows what that is.

It was even more so when I was writing and playtesting this world, because at that point a significant part of the playtesting process involved the fact that I would be making changes, filling in gaps, working out what actually had to be in the world and correspondingly what had to be in those pages to which others presumably are constrained.

Further, I create many worlds entirely on the fly, having no knowledge myself of what is going to be in them until after exploration begins and I start looking for answers to the questions the players are asking.

Yet all of this seems still to be simulationist play. We're not addressing premises or stepping up to challenges. We are cooperatively unfolding a universe maybe none of us have ever previously imagined or encountered. I may be making it up as we go along, and devising the parameters that fit what is already known, but it's still simulationist.

I am not the only one who does this. One of our most avid known players, Eric "World-a-Week" Ashley, does this all the time, and I've watched him do it. He has already run a convention seminar on how to create worlds on the fly, and he's good at it.

So the question is, if the referee has the full credibility to create anything he wants, and the players have no basis on which to challenge anything he claims is part of the world, in what sense has "constructive denial" occurred or become part of the process?

Or is the assessment entirely wrong, and this form of play in which players are experiencing the dream of being in a world completely unknown to them from the ground up (quite literally in the two worlds cited, where almost nothing is what it seems) is not actually simulationism?

I really like what I'm reading about "constructive denial" otherwise, and I want to say that it is a major part of the simulationist process, but I'm thinking there must be some aspect of the terminology I'm not understanding--or else my roleplaying experiences include data completely outside Ron's and the theory does not yet account for them.


--M. J. Young

Ron Edwards

Easy as pie, M.J.

It's because the "package" that gets accepted as canon doesn't have to be as simple as a set of costumery and stories (i.e. "playing Star Trek"). It may instead focus much more strongly on mechanism rather than subject. This is the essence of Purist for System Sim play and design - to have the canon be how it works rather than what it is.

But the logic, aesthetic content, and goals of play are exactly the same from an outsider or summary perspective. Establish (a) - how it works, no matter what. Then challenge it (b) - with "well, can it work here?" and continue. The fact that Multiverser uses the very thing that traditionally stops play (character death) as the springboard for starting this question anew, speaks to the reason to play.

You, uh, do realize that the reward system of Multiverser is predicated on the character dying? Whereas in N play, it might ask what the point of dying is, in Multiverser (without add-ons, etc), it is what's next? And the metagame tension concerning that is, we used it to do that, now can it do this?

I've been saying it all along. Although I commonly use genre conventions as the source-material touchpoint when discussing Sim play, only because it's so obvious and common, that's only one way to seize the five components of Exploration with a bevy of implications/points that the group appreciates. Another way is to focus on how it is done, how it works, will it work, and similar.



I don't like the term Constructive Denial.

The Denial half has tons of negative associations to me. If this term comes into usage, I expect we will see the same kind of knee jerk misunderstandings/accusations of elitism/whatever that float around the terms incoherence and fantasy heartbreaker.

Now, I expect lots of discussion will be generated, but that discussion will focus on the term and not on the ideas the term refers to.

Which honestly may not bother anyone else, but I thought I'd take a stand on it before it was adopted.

Apologies for the sidetrack.
Robert Earley-Clark

currently developing:The Village Game:Family storytelling with toys


Quote from: komradebob on December 02, 2005, 05:00:55 AM
The Denial half has tons of negative associations to me. If this term comes into usage, I expect we will see the same kind of knee jerk misunderstandings/accusations of elitism/whatever that float around the terms incoherence and fantasy heartbreaker.

Damn the Codependency Movement for ruining a perfectly good word. And that's the problem - for this purpose the word IS perfectly good, esp paired with 'constructive." It's the negation you build with. A very powerful formulation.

I know Ron is too busy standing off the Hun to worry about the touchy-feely stuff, but what about "constructive self-denial." Now you're out of the Self-Improvement section and onto the Diet and Fitness shelves in terms of connotations, and I think the term may be as precise and evocative of the thing described as "constructive denial" or even moreso.

MJ, re your world-building on the fly and where the denial comes in: from what principles do you build worlds as you go? Is there anything you won't add to a world on the fly for the sake of some kind or other of "interest?"


Unqualified Offerings - Looking Sideways at Your World
20' x 20' Room - Because Roleplaying Games Are Interesting

Ron Edwards


Jim, I'm going to venture a guess for the answer to your question to M.J.

What a GM won't add is anything that doesn't follow a rule for building a Multiverser world. And ... (wait for it)

... the players wouldn't accept it if he did.

That's how they are enlisting in the constructive denial.

Of selves, if you want to phrase it that way. I'm OK with that as a personal add-on.



Quote from: Ron Edwards on December 02, 2005, 05:45:59 AM

Jim, I'm going to venture a guess for the answer to your question to M.J.

What a GM won't add is anything that doesn't follow a rule for building a Multiverser world. And ... (wait for it)

... the players wouldn't accept it if he did.

Yup. That was pretty much my own guess, as you know doubt figured. MJ? How close are we?


Unqualified Offerings - Looking Sideways at Your World
20' x 20' Room - Because Roleplaying Games Are Interesting